All “Eyes” on Orlando: Why Tourist Destinations Are Investing in Giant Ferris Wheels

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

The Orlando Eye

Earlier this month, Orlando joined the ranks of tourist destinations that are investing in giant Ferris wheels. The London Eye. The Las Vegas High Roller. The Beijing Great Wheel. And now, the Orlando Eye. Today, these rides are being more commonly referred to as observation wheels and the experience is mostly focused on a sophisticated, smooth ride in gondolas that allow visitors to float above the city and see the sights. There are some technical elements that determine what can truly be called a Ferris wheel, and many of these rides differ slightly in their construction. Still, the average tourist is unlikely to make the distinction.

But the big question is – why are observation wheels so popular? Theme park rides have evolved eons beyond the Ferris wheel, and the average rider is unlikely to be intrigued by the motion, height, or “thrill” when compared to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, for example.

There’s some element of success breeding success. As city after city has turned their own observation wheel into a money maker, others are following suit. It’s a recognizable attraction, that doesn’t require a significant amount of imagination or investment on the part of urban planners. They’re also relatively quick to implement – usually being constructed and active about a year after making the decision to build, which means they’re generating revenue in fairly short order.

Linq High Roller

Chasing records for the highest wheel is also part of the equation. Currently, in the US, the highest wheels in descending order are the Las Vegas High Roller, Orlando Eye, Dallas’ Texas Star, the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, and the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel. The top five are slated to be unseated when The New York Wheel, at 630 feet high, opens on Staten Island in 2017.

Observation wheels are also consistent tourist draws. Ferris wheels have a certain romance and nostalgia associated with them. Whether guests are eager to appreciate the skyline, try the “newest thing,” or just add something memorable to their trip to a given city, observation wheels are a popular bet for tourism planners. Riding an observation wheel can offer a different experience during trips that are otherwise packed with museums, historical attractions, cultural hotspots, and shopping.

The resurgence of the Ferris wheel as a modern attraction began with designer Ronald Bussink. He designed an observation wheel in 2000 for a millennium celebration in Paris, and immediately recognized the potential to be a draw in other cities. According to one interview, his sales pitch to prospective clients focused on several points. Did the city have a great view? Would the location be visible to the curious public? Did the area have enough foot traffic to generate sales?

First of the Eyes: London Eye

The business models behind observation wheels are intriguing. On the whole, glass air-conditioned gondolas hold somewhere in the region of 20 – 40 people per car; the High Roller holds 40 in each of its 32 cabins. Each rotation takes 30 minutes; tickets are $26.95 during the day, $36.95 at night. Revenues add up, even when the wheels aren’t at full capacity. What’s interesting to note, however, is that many cities incorporate the wheels as part of a broader planning initiative. They’re frequently surrounded by shops and restaurants, or located in the heart of a business and tourist district. The foot traffic to the wheel theoretically translates into more business for the shops, and vice versa.

The Orlando Eye gives tourists a new way to see Florida’s theme park mecca. Despite minor glitches that have led to some brief shut downs, it seems like it’s off to a healthy start. The bigger question is how sustainable the observation wheel is as a category of attraction. For cities like Orlando, New York, and London which see inflows of first-time tourists anxious to see the sights, these attractions could have some staying power. For smaller cities that rely on repeat visits from local and regional guests, the future may be murkier. Still, one thing’s clear: observation wheels are a big moneymaker and they’re continuing to pop up in locales around the globe for the foreseeable future.

Images sourced from Orlando Eye and Wikipedia

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